Screwing Over Your Opponents Does Not Lead to Optimal Policy

One thing that helps reinforce political gridlock is the belief that if you give an inch in the name of compromise, the other side will figure out a way to take a foot. That’s why Republicans refuse to raise taxes under any circumstances. The result is that it often seems like the only course of action is to try as hard as you can to take an inch. That’s why Democrats are making an outsized effort to force the GOP to vote for a tax increase.

Regrettably, this type of dynamic often plays out in education policy, and a good example is New York City school chancellor Dennis Walcott’s recent obsession with making it easier to fire teachers found guilty of sexual misconduct. The backstory is that the current DOE-union compromise in New York City requires all cases of sexual misconduct to be brought before an arbiter. Most of the time the arbiter either clears the teacher of wrongdoing, in which case there is no punishment, or finds the teacher guilty, in which case the teacher is fired. However, there are a handful of cases in which the arbiter has found teachers guilty of some wrongdoing, but decided to hand down a lesser punishment such as a fine or suspension. Walcott wants the power to fire these teachers, and his recent full-frontal assault on union protections includes an op-ed in the New York Times and the championing of new legislation.

There’s no question that Walcott should be able to protect students by firing teachers who pose a danger. But Walcott’s push doesn’t seem to be all about that. It seems to be about making unions give an inch in their efforts to prevent teacher firings, and it seems to be about driving union hypocrisies and perverse priorities (job security over student security) out into the open. As expected, the UFT (NYC largest teacher’s union) has responded to being exposed with an inane proposal to do more screening when hiring new teachers. UFT head Michael Mulgrew even released a hilarious statement attacking Walcott for not caring about the sexual misconduct issue — the evidence being that Walcott ignored the UFT’s proposal.

From a political perspective, Walcott’s plan was brilliant. But that’s the problem. In a functioning political system the benefits of good policy should be 80% societal and 20% political, not the other way around. Is the policy change Walcott wants helpful, right, and necessary? Absolutely. By waging a PR campaign did he make it harder for the UFT to quietly compromise on the issue? Most likely. Would the resources Walcott put into this effort have been better used promoting something less politically important and more educationally important? Probably. As enticing as highlighting your opponent’s stupidity may be, we’d all be better off if people made less of an effort to screw over their opponents when those efforts don’t also create other significant benefits.

On a somewhat related note, here’s a quote form Nietszche that I came across on Twitter today:

At times one remains faithful to a cause only because its opponents do not cease to be insipid.

I think that nicely sums up my general support for education reform, and it’s more eloquent than referring to myself as anti-anti-charter school.


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